Friday, January 16, 2009

You Don't Mess with the Zohan

This might be surprising to some people, but I don't entirely loathe Adam Sandler nor his movies. Sure, most of them are pretty stupid, but I loved Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and Big Daddy wasn't half bad either. So I watched You Don't Mess with the Zohan with an open mind. After all, it was co-written by Robert Smigel, ex-Saturday Night Live and Conan O'Brien writer, creator of TV Funhouse, and member of the Chicago Superfans.

Few comedies have the chutzpah to make light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Zohan manages to score some genuine laughs at the expense of both Israelis and Palestinians. I enjoyed the scene at the beginning of the movie, where Adam Sandler (the eponymous main character, an expert Mossad agent who longs to become a hairdresser) sits down for dinner with his mother and father (played by Shelley Berman). Zohan is expressing his dissatisfaction with his job, and his father, a veteran of the Six-Day War, lays the classic Jewish guilt trip on him. ("You complain? We won our war in six days!) This is such a classic expression of the reverence Israelis have for the Six-Day War and for the people who served in it. And the scene where Rob Schneider, a Lebanese cab driver ignorant in the ways of jihad, calls the Hezbollah hotline is hilarious. There's even an extended reference to one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits, the "Sabra Shopping Network", in which Smigel plays an Israeli electronics shop owner hawking worthless stereos with "Sony guts".

Despite the movie's good intentions, it comes off as facile and borderline irresponsible in light of Israel's current Gaza Strip campaign. The movie's central, somewhat cutesy message is that Israelis and Palestinians are more alike than they are different. In the end, Zohan and arch-terrorist Phantom (John Turturro), set aside their rivalry and jointly open a hair salon/shoe store in a revitalized lower Manhattan shopping district. A cute ending, but it places a false equivalency between the agression of Palestinian terrorists and Israeli response to that terrorism. In the current Gaza Strip war, for example, more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli air raids and other military actions; Palestinian rockets, by contrast, have injured or killed only a handful of Israelis.

It's probably too much to ask of an Adam Sandler comedy to make an intelligent commentary on the state of Israeli agression in the occupied territories. But the perpetuation of this "equivalency myth" is still dangerous in whatever form it takes.

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